By Guy Higgins

Several years ago, I read a biography of Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist. One thing that struck me was that, in his field, Feynman accepted no new data or results without duplicating the original work himself. If he was successful in duplicating the published results, and, if the published hypothesis was supported by those results, Dr. Feynman would integrate the new information into his model of the world. I thought that his approach was interesting, but that he also wasted a lot of time. Well, now I’m not so sure he wasted his time. His approach ensured that he really understood how the data and results were derived and whether or not they were valid or as broad ranging as the published articles stated. He knew!

Dr. Feynman’s approach was extremely important from his perspective because he maintained a mental model of how the real world actually works. Not beliefs about how the world works, but how he knew that it worked. That meant, to him (and, I have to assume, any rational person), that if new results and conclusions conflicted with his mental model, he had only two choices. He could demonstrate that the work, data, results, and conclusions were wrong or invalid, or, accept that the work, data results, and conclusions were correct he would be forced to change his mental model to conform to his new knowledge. That kind of rigor (and the ethics and willingness to change his mind), is extremely important. That was important for Dr. Feynman, and it’s important for leaders everywhere.  

Leaders cannot afford to accept any “knowledge” as unchangeable dogma. Research today is uncovering new insights and modifying old knowledge at an incredible rate. Failure to recognize that kind of change will lead to bad decisions and avoidable failures.

Now, I just recently came across a quote from Thomas Edison: “I regard it as a criminal waste of time to go through the slow and painful ordeal of ascertaining things for one’s self if these same things have already been ascertained and made available by others.”

This concept also has value – why bother to investigate and find for yourself information that has already been uncovered by others? Isn’t that inefficient? Yes it is, but it’s also contrary to Dr. Feynman’s approach.

Several years ago, I was in a meeting at a company at which a new research-and-prototype effort was being discussed. Part of the discussion centered around using a constant-speed engine to drive a variable pitch propeller. (For any Noble Reader who is interested, you can control the power actually making a vehicle go by changing the engine speed [a steam locomotive], changing the speed of the power transmitting mechanism [some turbo-prop airplane power systems] or both [your car’s engine/transmission combination].) Having several thousand hours of flight time in an airplane with a constant speed/variable pitch propeller system, I was keenly aware of a potential fatal failure – the constant speed propeller could, if not properly controlled, create a resonant vibration as each propeller blade crossed a structural element (the wing or the test fixture). I mentioned that risk and explained where and how to find the fifty-year-old data. That seemed to me to be an excellent chance to follow Mr. Edison’s philosophy, but the project engineer ignored what I said and (unintentionally) followed Dr. Feynman’s approach. The project team proved that it is relatively easy to set up a resonant vibration that will in less than a second or two destroy the test fixture. A costly case of learning for oneself!

So, when should we follow Dr. Feynman’s approach, and when should we assume Mr. Edison’s philosophy. I don’t think that there is a magic answer here any more than there are magic answers anywhere else, but it seems to me that there are some criteria that can help:

  • Is the information germane to your business? If not, don’t worry about it.
  • Is the information new – i.e. the result of some new research?
  • If the information is not new, has it been broadly accepted in your domain, and is it still congruent with your company’s/organization’s understanding of how things work? If it’s established information in your domain and is congruent with your understanding, it’s probably worth using without re-inventing the wheel.
  • If the information is new and is disruptive to your understanding of your business or your domain, I think you should investigate and research the source of the information. It may not be possible to repeat the original work, but someone, somewhere may have attempted to duplicate the results. Look for that. If you can’t validate or verify the new information, you can still decide to use it – but cautiously. Document your use of the information and the results.

This is not going to be easy, but blindly accepting or rejecting new information (and potentially, knowledge) can be costly. As leaders, we should be establishing methodologies to evaluate new ideas, information, approaches or theories.

As a final idea, I don’t think that we should expect that using new ideas, information, approaches or theories will yield, for us, exactly what the original developers of that “stuff” (technical term) reported. The real world is a complex adaptive system and that means that there are very few “cut-and-dried” answers to difficult questions.



One thought on “Learning

  1. Apparently, my mental model about mental models is:
    (1) a mental model for us is like water is to fish — so all encompassing as to be invisible.
    (2) we only see them when we are on the way out of them – and then they are obvious.

    Our structures (policies, practices, processes, . . .) can give us (or our well compensated consultants) clues as to the mental models from which they came.

    But then, I won’t know about that mental model for mental models until I’m about half way out of it. And many say that I am half way out of it about half the time.

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